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Orioles surviving without outfield depth

The Orioles’ active roster consists of only three true outfielders. How have they managed so far, and how long will it last?

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, and Dwight Smith Jr.— those are the Orioles’ three starting outfielders. They’re also the Orioles’ only outfielders.

With rosters expanded to 28 players, Baltimore has elected to keep only three active outfielders. A rarity when a team was limited to 25, the move seems even more peculiar with the extra spots.

Insert joke about the year 2020 here.

This wasn’t always the plan. The Orioles roster featured five outfielders less than a week ago, and an additional player that could man the green grass in a pinch. Unfortunately, two of those guys just could not perform.

DJ Stewart did not record a hit in 14 at bats. The former first-round pick appeared in eight games, and failed to luck into one. His plate discipline held true with six walks, but a Major Leaguer has to put the ball in play. The 26-year-old struck out eight times.

Stewart has never been regarded as a plus defender, which only magnifies his offensive regression. There’s simply no argument to keep Stewart with the team if he’s not hitting. To quote another Gainesville native regarding the Floridian’s play this season, “Yer So Bad.”

Man, I miss Tom Petty.

Cedric Mullins knows a thing or two about slumps to begin the year. The former center-fielder-of-the-future is back at Bowie for the second consecutive season. Mullins recorded only six hits in 74 big league at bats last season, and managed just one in 13 tries this year.

Mullins brings speed to the lineup and can play center field, which gives him two advantages over Stewart. That’s likely why Mullins lasted a few days longer than Stewart before he was also optioned to the alternate training site. Still, the O’s decided they could do without Mullins as well.

As the roster stands, utility man Andrew Velazquez is the only outfield depth around. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has been hesitant to ask Pat Valaika to play outside of the infield, and Stevie Wilkerson remains sidelined with a “boutonniere deformity” on his left ring finger.

The Orioles could carry up to five players on their taxi squad, but the club elected to bring only one extra player, infielder Ramón Urías, to Philadelphia. Clearly the Birds feel Velazquez could handle a spot start, and would ship a player up from Baltimore the next day after an injury.

Still, who that player would be remains a mystery. Would Baltimore circle back to Mullins or Stewart, or do they feel both need a hard reset and additional instruction at the Bowie camp? If not either of the two, then who?

Speaking of “additional instruction,” top tier prospect Ryan Mountcastle has been receiving plenty at Bowie this season. The former first-round pick boasts a major league ready bat, but the organization insists they need to see better plate discipline and defensive development from the 23-year-old.

The Orioles have had Mountcastle playing musical chairs positions since they selected him in 2015, and now the righty projects as a left fielder. Many expect to see Mountcastle at some point in 2020, and the Birds are already a quarter of the way through the season.

Obviously the team’s outfield plan was derailed with the announcement that star player Trey Mancini had stage 3 colon cancer. While Mancini fights through what’s likely the toughest battle he’s ever faced, he clearly will not return this season.

The Orioles best offensive lineup would feature Mancini at first, Mountcastle in left, and Chris Davis somewhere very, very far away. Baltimore has made it abundantly clear that it refuses to rush Mountcastle to the bigs. It appears unlikely that an injury to a corner outfielder would jump start the process at this point. He’ll arrive when he’s ready. Whenever that may be...

Center fielder Mason Williams is still stashed at the alternate site, and the O’s could elect to give him a shot over Mullins if they needed someone to play up the middle. Williams recorded eight hits in 30 at bats during 11 games in Baltimore last season. Former top prospect Yusniel Díaz is at camp in Bowie, but it does not appear likely he’ll get the nod this season.

Velazquez has yet to start a game in left field, but the O’s appear comfortable rolling the dice without reinforcements. In a short season, there’s little concern for scheduled days off. Mullins and Stewart will likely receive another opportunity at some point, but it’s difficult to bring either bat back onto a competitive baseball team.

The Orioles’ current roster features 15 pitchers, seven infielders (counting Velazquez) and three catchers. It’s a unique formula, but one that works in the short term. Will the O’s call on Mountcastle anytime soon? Will either Mullins or Stewart receive another opportunity, or could a surprise guest make an appearance?

Until then, all anyone can do is tip their cap to Hays, Santander and Smith Jr.